CARACAS Venezuela's president has weighed into global controversy over Uruguay striker Luis Suarez's World Cup expulsion, saying he had been unfairly punished for helping eliminate Italy and England.
"They can't forgive Uruguay that a son of the people has eliminated two of football's big nations, so they invented a whole case," Nicolas Maduro said late on Friday.
Suarez scored two goals against England in a 2-1 victory, and helped his team to a 1-0 win over Italy in the group stages, meaning Uruguay and Costa Rica made it to the next round while the humiliated Europeans went home.
It was in the Italy game that Suarez bit defender Giorgio Chiellini, earning him a nine-match ban from international games and a four-month suspension from football altogether by world governing body FIFA.
"It's very painful this disproportionate punishment that FIFA has taken against Luis Suarez, a great striker who belongs to all of us in South America," said Maduro, the populist successor to late Venezuelan socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez.
"Noone denies some corrective measures were needed, but to suspend him for four months from football where he shines? To take him out of the World Cup? Latin America views this with outrage and we reject it totally."
Suarez's actions did provoke widespread international shock, but there is also a growing chorus of criticism of the punishment as excessive, including from Chiellini himself.
The strongest comments have come from Latin American leftists, ranging from Uruguay's President Jose Mujica to Argentine footballing great Diego Maradona who have cast the affair in terms of an international conspiracy.
Maduro, a former bus-driver who calls himself Venezuela's "worker-president", said all Latin Americans felt for Suarez, especially given his humble background.
"We send him a greeting of solidarity and brotherhood. A son of the people, a son of a simple woman who worked as a house-help, who lived in great poverty and rose from that," he said on state TV.
Suarez has returned to Uruguay to be with his family.
Though Venezuela has more of a baseball tradition, its 29 million people have embraced football more in recent years and been glued to the World Cup despite the disappointment of their own national side not making it in a spirited qualifying campaign.
(Reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne)